U46’s gifted program defended at discrimination trial
By Emily McFarlan firstname.lastname@example.org March 15, 2012 8:24PM
Updated: April 17, 2012 8:12AM
CHICAGO — Rachael Jackson, a bilingual gifted specialist in Elgin School District U46 for the past 10 years, said if the district ended its gifted program for Spanish-speaking students, “I would cry.”
“The students need the support,” Jackson said. “They need to be in a place where they feel safe, where they feel confident, where they’re with other kids like them.”
That program is one of several under fire in the racial discrimination trial against U46 in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
Phases two and three of the lawsuit, which began last fall, allege the state’s second-largest school district did not offer appropriate help to English Language Learner students. They also claim it did not offer students who were black or Hispanic access to gifted and advanced programs.
Phase one, argued a year ago, alleges U46 discriminated against black and Hispanic students by placing them in overcrowded schools in its 2004 school boundary plan.
Much of the testimony this week has been about the school district’s School Within A School and Spanish English Transition School Within A School programs.
SWAS is its gifted program from elementary and middle school students. SET SWAS is its gifted program taught in both English and Spanish for students who either still qualify for services from the district’s ELL program or recently exited the program, meaning they are considered proficient in English.
Judge Robert W. Gettleman questioned why students considered proficient in English would be placed SET SWAS.
“There are many different layers to a language. I could go to Berlitz and learn a language, but that doesn’t mean I would be able to express myself,” Jackson said.
When students enter SET SWAS in fourth grade, the specialist said, students start fifth-grade math. They move through the curriculum much more quickly than other fourth-grade classrooms and produce much more in-depth projects, she said.
In social studies, students might discuss the pros and cons of President Abraham Lincoln freeing slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation — something students would need “serious English” to express, said Kathleen Hughes, former director of gifted education in U46.
Jackson admitted during cross-examination that of the 50 total students in SET SWAS this year at both at both Sheridan Elementary School in Elgin and Sunnydale Elementary School in Streamwood, only five or six students at each school (10 or 12 total) still qualify for ELL services. And last year, only two moved from SET SWAS to SWAS before the Spanish-speaking gifted program ended in middle school, she said.
‘They love it’
But Jackson said she never has heard a complaint from parents about SET SWAS “because they love it.”
“The parents often tell me their students are much more confident, they’re much more independent, they just love the program. They have intellectual peers.”
Jackson and Hughes also described the process U46 uses to identify students for the SWAS and SET SWAS programs, which begin in fourth grade. Hughes also discussed how students were recruited for its academy for gifted students at Elgin High School, to which any student can apply.
During his cross-examination of Hughes, Stewart Weltman of Futterman Howard Ashley & Weltman pointed to numbers from the 2007-08 school year: The number of Hispanic students in SWAS and SET SWAS in sixth grade dropped 10 to 15 percent the next year, when those students started middle school. And none of the fifth-graders in SWAS were black, and none of the seniors in the academy were either black or Hispanic, he said.
Defendants’ attorneys later introduced Joyce Fountain, a member of the U46 Board of Education since 1993, as their next witness before the trial took another break Thursday afternoon.
The trial tentatively will resume Monday, April 23, Gettleman said Wednesday.
But first, plaintiff’s attorneys are expected to respond to a motion made Wednesday by U46 attorneys for a partial judgment on the ELL phase of the trial. Gettleman said at the time he planned to make a decision by the time the trial is set to resume.
The lawsuit originally was brought against U46 by 14 plaintiffs in 2006.